by MICHAEL BOWEN, ANN M. COLFORD, MARTY DEMAREST, TED S. McGREGOR JR., JOEL SMITH & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & dire report in this week's New Yorker outlines the reduction in reading among Americans over the last half-century. From the Census Bureau to the Department of Labor to the National Endowment for the Arts, statistical reports trace the decline and fall of the American reading habit.
But we're in the business of stringing together words here, and we're dependent on our readers to continue to, you know, read. As a form of encouragement, we suggest these 10 books from the past year: They're the ones that our writers and editors found notable.
If you feel sure that dogs have no emotions -- if you wonder why someone whose dog just died doesn't simply go out and get another one -- then skip Mark Doty's memoir. Dog Years is one of the most beautiful and insightful books I have ever read. And one of the saddest. Making a doggy commitment means embracing the sadness, one death at a time -- along with all their funny puppy tricks. Doty, a poet who's skilled at description, revels in the present, in the colors and aromas of strolls in the woods. His book makes me want to return home, before the opportunity's lost, and go for a walk with my dogs. (MB)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
I'll begin with a brief nitpick -- enough with the adverbs already! -- and a statement that this book is on our list not so much for its own merits, but as a representative for the entire seven-book series. (Would that be a septilogy?) Author J.K. Rowling created a world that has entranced readers for nearly a decade, and this final volume brings the whole thing to a satisfying conclusion. The mayhem kicks off in the first few pages, yet somehow Rowling ties all the pieces together. (AC)
Here If You Need Me
As a minister and a chaplain, author Kate Braestrup brings humor and compassion to the experience of grief, along with a dead-on intuition about how to tell a story. Those gifts make Here If You Need Me a wonder and a joy to read. Death is a sacred but messy business, and Braestrup's work with the Maine Warden Service puts her at the scene of search-and-rescue missions where the outcome could be either tragedy or joy. Drawing on her own experiences of grief, doubt and faith, she accompanies others with clear-eyed honesty, curiosity, and an appreciation for the absurdities of human life. (AC)
Author Alice Hoffman is a snapshot artist who sketches wispy portraits of her characters. Yet as the sketches accumulate, three-dimensional forms emerge, people whose lives are intertwined and interdependent. We meet Arlyn Singer at 17, on the night of her father's funeral, when the cool and orderly architecture student, John Moody, stumbles into her life. Their children bear the scars of their less-than-perfect marriage, and they all live in a house full of windows and light -- and sharp edges and precipices and nowhere to hide. Hoffman explores how a single moment, one decision, lays the groundwork for not just one life but all the lives that cross its path. Her sketches produce an affecting family portrait. (AC)
Haruki Murakami is one of the great writers of all time, and I consider myself lucky to be alive while he's working. Despite its brevity, After Dark is as metaphysical and abstract as any of his other recent novels, with mysterious girls and dark spaces serving as vehicles for his almost Lynchian surrealism. After Dark presses the boundaries between fiction, poetry and pure text, developing characters that seem to go nowhere and everywhere in a recognizably fragmented and disconnected modern world. (MD)
Montana author Deirdre McNamer writes a virtuoso mystery that is both politically sharp and believably human, set in the New West during the course of the 20th Century. By juggling time frames, Red Rover's tale of governmental betrayal and individual apathy leaps across generations and the Montana landscape with gorgeous prose and meticulously developed characters. (MD)
The Rest is Noise
The New Yorker's classical music critic Alex Ross took on the monumental task of contextualizing some of the greatest music written in the 20th Century. Instead of "Modern Music 101," however, the result is a cultural history as heard through the sounds of some of the century's most advanced artists. Complete with listening suggestions, The Rest is Noise makes a strong case for the continued relevance of classical music by untangling the dissonance into the frayed social threads that gave rise to it. (MD)
Christopher Moore's tiny little vampire novel takes off where Buffy left off. Instead of using the supernatural as a pretentious metaphor, Moore uses it to drain contemporary drama (sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll) of its own weight. The comedic tone is both knowing and casually outlandish, and it's joined with an equally outsized plot that makes You Suck an example of where some of the best comedic writing is starting to go in American literature. (MD)
The Coldest Winter
Here's a fitting end to a distinguished career. Veteran journalist David Halberstam had been thinking about writing a book on Korea for much of his life -- ever since he spent hours and hours listening to stories from Korean vets deployed in Vietnam. It was a conflict already being forgotten in the 1970s, and today it has slipped even farther into the mists of time. But Halberstam -- who died in a car accident last spring -- has reclaimed it as a pivotal moment. His sharp character sketches of MacArthur, Truman, Mao and Stalin fill in some important blanks in understanding how American foreign policy entered so uncertain and bloody a phase. (TSM)
The World Without Us
Where most environmental writing sounds the alarm and asks, "What are we going to do?" journalist Alan Weisman wipes out all of humanity in the first chapter and then asks, "Now what?" The morbid premise makes it all the more fascinating as Weisman explores -- in exquisite detail -- how the planet would heal itself after humans ruined it, what would happen to your house (the drywall rots, the roof caves in, parasites take over), to New York (the subway tunnels collapse, Lexington Avenue becomes a river again). Eerie, but utterly engrossing. And -- ultimately -- a little hopeful. (JS)
The new one is smart and funny and action-packed, and it’s bigger and better and sleeker. And Downey does it again, this time ramping up Stark’s arrogant wisecracking, telling anyone who’ll listen (mostly women) that, via the creation of his powerful Iron Man suit, he’s brought years of uninterrupted peace to the world.